Monday, August 14, 2017

BROKEN APART, DISCLOSE ACT STILL VITAL FOR PUBLIC TRUST

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 1, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
     “BROKEN APART, DISCLOSE ACT STILL VITAL FOR PUBLIC TRUST”


          “Give light and the people will find their own way.” – longtime slogan of the now-defunct Scripps Howard Newspapers group.


          The essence of that motto, written early in the last century, was a strong belief that if Americans know enough about an issue or politician or political choice, they will act in their own self-interest.


          Sadly, this conviction has not been tested much in recent years. The advent of social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram provides Americans and others with more information than ever, but much of it is bogus, what President Trump likes to call “fake news.”


          Especially since outfits like Scripps Howard and the Knight publishing company disappeared from the landscape, along with many family owned newspapers, there’s less of the reliable, hard news that reporters can gather only by expending shoe leather and persistence.


          And since the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s been difficult for anyone to know the true funders of the frequent messages, commercials and other ads conveyed via television, radio, social media and those newspapers that still try to inform the public.


          That’s why for much of this decade, the most important proposal before the California Legislature has been a bill known as the Disclose Act, most actively pushed by an organization called the Clean Money Campaign.


          As first conceived, this proposed law would require disclosure of the leading funders of all political advertising and ballot initiative petitions in large letters, one version of the idea demanding those names be listed in lettering that matches the largest type used anywhere else in the same advertisement.


          This plan has now been broken apart a bit. One part, covering only initiative petitions, passed both the state Senate and a key Assembly committee before the Legislature’s annual midsummer break. This one would force all initiative petitions to carry the names of their three top funders in large letters in a prominent location. It would also not allow big-money interests to hide behind vague committee names like “Californians Against New Taxes” or the like.


          But once an initiative makes the ballot, becoming an actual proposition, there would be no more such information. So-called “dark money” contributors could go back into hiding.


          But not if another part of the proposal should pass. This bill, carried by former Democratic Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez of East Los Angeles until his summertime election to Congress, would require large-letter donor disclosures in all ads for both candidates and propositions.


          While there appear to be few obstacles to eventual passage of the bill covering initiative petitions, the outlook may not be as rosy for its wider-ranging companion.


          When Gomez left for Congress, there was temporarily no legislative sponsor for this measure. Only at the last moment did the Senate Rules Committee, led by Democratic Senate President Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles, OK a bid by San Mateo’s Democratic Assemblyman Kevin Mullin to be the necessary sponsor.


          The fact this non-dispute went on awhile cost the bill precious time, reducing chances of passage this summer. It’s true there’s some potential for it to pass this fall or next year, but next year is an election year and labor unions which fund many Democratic campaigns oppose this plan.


          So it’s safe to say the real meat of the Disclose Act – prominent disclosure of the largest contributors in all political ads – is not exactly a high priority for de Leon and other legislative leaders, even though he and others nominally support the idea.


          Fully 12,000 persons petitioned the Rules Committee to allow Mullin to become the latest Disclose Act sponsor, with 1,500 persons telephoning the committee, too. It will likely take much more support than that to push this idealistic measure through a Legislature still patting itself on the back for extending cap-and-trade environmental tactics to cut greenhouse gases.


          Which very likely means yet another election season will go by without a thorough test of that old Scripps Howard motto.



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     Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to www.californiafocus.net

STATE SENATE SHOULD LOOK HARD AT NEW UTILITY REGULATOR

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, AUGUST 29, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
 “STATE SENATE SHOULD LOOK HARD AT NEW UTILITY REGULATOR”


          Depending on how things go in a scheduled Aug. 23 state Senate confirmation hearing on Gov. Jerry Brown’s latest choice for a seat on the powerful state Public Utilities Commission, many millions of consumers could face both health risks and higher-than-necessary electric, gas and water bills for the next six years.


          That’s the length of the term to which Brown appointed his longtime close aide Clifford Rechtschaffen, labeled a “lapdog” of the oil industry by some consumer advocates. Once confirmed, he can’t be fired by either Brown or the next governor.


The Consumer Watchdog group tags him a utility lapdog, claiming Rechtschaffen in 2011 told two top state oil and gas regulators to grant hydraulic fracking permits for Occidental Petroleum Co. in Kern County on pain of firing. When they refused, citing state and federal laws requiring drinking water aquifer safety checks prior to permitting, he allegedly dismissed Derek Chernow, then acting director of the state Department of Conservation, and Elena Miller, the state’s top oil and gas supervisor. It is undisputed fact that after they were dumped by Brown’s administration, Rechtschaffen temporarily assumed Chernow’s job.


          In appointing him to the five-member PUC, which often favors utility companies over their customers, Brown said his adviser “has the experience as a lawyer, teacher and specialist in environmental and energy matters…to do an outstanding job.”


          Meanwhile, a usually reliable source told this column that Rechtschtaffen wrote one or more of 63 still-secret emails between Brown or his aides and the PUC from the time soon after the 2012 failure and shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. That source also said one email threatened the job of a PUC official unless that official supported a settlement dunning consumers more than two-thirds of San Onofre’s closure costs – or $3.3 billion.


          Brown press secretary Evan Westrup called this claim “pure fiction,” but neither confirmed nor denied that Rechtschaffen wrote one or more of the hidden emails, instead citing a PUC spokeswoman’s statement that “the emails in question did not relate to the San Onofre settlement…” Westrup did not respond when shown a PUC statement saying the emails were withheld in part because they reflect “discussions between … (PUC President Michael) Picker and his advisors, the disclosure of which would reveal (his) thought process regarding the matter.”


          The San Onofre settlement is notorious for its essence having been reached in a secret meeting between former PUC President Michael Peevey and executives of the Southern California Edison Co. Revelations of that meeting impelled the PUC in May 2016 to order a reopening of its settlement decision.


          Rechtschaffen ignored a request to answer questions on all this. His confirmation is before the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Democratic Senate President Kevin de Leon. Similar hearings for PUC appointees have almost always been love fests between senators and appointees. More of the same seems likely this time, as de Leon craves support from Brown for his bill to make the entire state a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants.


          Brown openly questions parts of that plan, and no one knows what he might do if de Leon’s committee were tough on his aide Rechtschtaffen.


          Meanwhile, press secretary Westrup called questions about Rechtschaffen’s record “chasing bogus conspiracy theories.” He insisted the appointee will be independent. “You should know that sharp, independent thinking is among the attributes valued most by the administration,” he wrote in an email.


          The most significant PUC move during Rechtschaffen’s six months as an acting commissioner came when it signed off on the partial reopening of the Southern California Gas Co.’s Aliso Canyon natural gas storage field in northern Los Angeles. Area residents, many still suffering from malaises associated with a five-month methane leak there in 2015-16, complained Aliso Canyon should not have reopened until the still-unknown causes of the leak are found.


          Commissioners did not vote on the reopening, but could have objected or asked the PUC’s executive director not to OK it. Neither Rechtschaffen nor any other commissioner did that.


          Now it’s incumbent on Rules Committee members to ask Rechtschaffen why he did not speak up when public health might be at risk. His answers could provide clues about whether he’ll be independent of the companies he’s set to regulate.


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     Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to www.californiafocus.net.  

Monday, August 7, 2017

VACCINATION LAW BEGINS SHOWING RESULTS

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE:  FRIDAY, AUGUST 25, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
“VACCINATION LAW BEGINS SHOWING RESULTS”


          The last year saw no major outbreaks of measles or any of the other nine potentially fatal diseases against which California public schoolchildren must be vaccinated – one possible result of a 2016 law that eliminated a “personal belief” exemption that formerly allowed thousands of youngsters to attend school without vaccinations.


          This “no news is good news” will see many parents drop off their kids with a new sense of security as schools open this fall.


          There’s a good reason for their relief: Vaccination rates of 7th-graders reportedly reached record levels during the last school year, the first in which the new, stricter rules applied.


          Seventh-graders can’t register for school unless they’ve had booster immunizations against tetanus (also called lockjaw), diphtheria and pertussis (better known as whooping cough). And if they haven’t previously been vaccinated against another seven diseases (measles, bacterial meningitis, mumps, polio, rubella, hepatitis B and chicken pox), those 7th graders must get it done before their enrollments can proceed.


          Now the state Department of Public Health reports that 7th-graders meeting school-entry vaccination requirements stood at 98.4 percent last spring, up 1.8 percent from three years earlier.


          That 1.8 percent can make a big difference, especially for the small percentage of schoolchildren who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons like being immune-suppressed by drugs needed to keep organ transplants going. Only 0.4 percent of school pupils now get medical exemptions.


          This leaves only about 1 percent of students unvaccinated for all other reasons, most of them the residue from the era when personal-belief exemptions were available to parents who dislike vaccinations. Those kids are allowed to continue in school until 7th grade, when they must provide written evidence of vaccination. The unvaccinated are now a small enough portion of the school population to minimize chances for any new outbreaks of the targeted diseases.


          The new law and the new emphasis on getting virtually all kids vaccinated stemmed from a 2014-15 outbreak of measles that struck some visitors to Disneyland and eventually infected 136 Californians, many of whom never visited the Orange County theme park but came into contact with people who did. Studies showed that no more than 86 percent of persons at Disneyland when the infections occurred had been vaccinated, not enough to ensure the safety of everyone there. Because some folks probably lied to researchers, the actual vaccination rate may have been as low as 50 percent, reported the Journal of the American Medical Association.


          In 2014, also, whooping cough was declared epidemic in California and listed as the cause of death of three infants too young for vaccination. They had likely been exposed to other children who were never vaccinated.


          The new numbers and the relief they bring to parents who want certainty that their children are safe do not, however, mean that everyone who used the old personal belief exemption (essentially allowing anyone to claim – with no verification – a religious conviction against vaccinations) has now acquiesced.


          Authorities estimate about half those who previously refused to vaccinate their children found other ways to preserve them in that status: vaccinations are not required for children being homeschooled, nor do families leaving the state need to comply. Precise numbers for these types of avoidance do not exist because California’s Department of Education doesn’t track either the number of homeschooled children or the number of parents migrating elsewhere for this reason.


          But at least those kids won’t be carrying any of the once-dreaded diseases into the state’s schoolrooms, making those who do attend schools as safe as they’ve ever been.


          None of this has come easily; opposition to vaccination remains and bogus negative medical studies on it abound. But several judges declined to issue injunctions against the law when they were sought by vaccination opponents and an effort to quality an anti-vaccination initiative for next year’s ballot has gone nowhere.


          So it appears the vaccination law will survive indefinitely, making schools and all public venues significantly safer for children, seniors and the immune-suppressed for the foreseeable future.

                           
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     Email Thomas Elias at tdelias@aol.com. His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, go to www.californiafocus.net


WHOSE UC IS IT? STILL A VALID QUESTION

CALIFORNIA FOCUS
FOR RELEASE: TUESDAY, AUGUST 22, 2017, OR THEREAFTER


BY THOMAS D. ELIAS
          “WHOSE UC IS IT? STILL A VALID QUESTION”


          As a new school year gets set to open on the nine campuses of the University of California, it’s fair for parents of prospective students to ask once again, as many have for at least the last eight years, whose UC will it be?


          The question first arose during the Great Recession that began about nine years ago, a time when UC began accepting more and more out-of-state and foreign students to help make up for funding cuts inflicted by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislators.


          Over 12 years, the foreign and out-of-state enrollment at UC – some of whose campuses are routinely listed among the top five public universities in America and the world – rose from 5 percent to more than 21 percent. University administrators were forced to concede the $26,000 in extra tuition paid by the children of Arab oil sheiks and Chinese multi-millionaires and government-subsidized students from myriad other places had a lot to do with their vastly increased numbers at UC.


Meanwhile, the proportion of highly eligible California high school graduates who actually went to UC was falling despite their supposedly being guaranteed a slot somewhere in the university.


          About two years ago, administrators began feeling some heat over this, with state legislators threatening to cut the taxpayer contributions to UC coffers unless the trend stopped.


          So UC regents voted overwhelmingly in late 2015 for a plan to increase in-state enrollment by 5,000 students in each of the next two years, this fall being the plan’s second year.


          This action, proposed by UC President Janet Napolitano, amounted to a tacit admission that the critics were correct.


          Since then, there has been a bit of a shift toward higher enrollments of Californians at UC. The system announced as it sent out acceptance offers this spring it would have 2,500 more California undergraduates than it did two years ago. Not exactly the 10,000 promised by the university’s governing board back then, but progress nonetheless.


          In fact, UC reported that admission offers to Californians declined this year by about 1,200 from last year, a drop of almost 2 percent. Meanwhile, a reported 31,030 non-Californians got admission offers, a jump of about 4 percent from last year.


          Justifiable outcries began immediately. “UC officials are tone deaf and insensitive to Californians and the (state’s) master plan for higher education,” said Northern California Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen. “Californians subsidize UC so that their children may attend and learn to be competitive in this global economy. Instead, UC officials are admitting non-Californians to the detriment of California students.”


          What Nielsen said is more true of the primo UC campuses like Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego and Irvine than it is of those at Riverside, Merced and Santa Cruz, which are in somewhat less demand by out-of-staters.


          UCLA admitted just 14.6 percent of California hopefuls this year, even as it became the first American public university to get more than 100,000 admission applications. Berkeley took just 19.7 percent, with out-of-staters eating up many slots that otherwise could go to Californians.


          As they previously have, UC officials predicted in-state enrollments would actually rise, noting they have longstanding analyses of how many admission offers are acted on by non-Californians.


          But there are new questions about the reliability of statements from Napolitano and her staff. A state audit, for example, showed the president’s office squirreled away about $175 million over the last few years in a slush fund, at the same time tuition rose by almost the same amount. That led to great mistrust, which many governors would have resolved by firing the perpetrators.


          But, as usual with financial chicanery conducted by officials associated with Gov. Jerry Brown, no one was punished and business carried on, following pious pledges to clean up their act from Napolitano and other administrators.


          All of which leads parents of prospective UC students to feel betrayed by and untrusting of a system originally created to serve people like their children.


         
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    Elias is author of the current book “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It,” now available in an updated third edition. His email address is tdelias@aol.com